I believe that most Blind Confidential readers can tell from the first six months of articles I’ve written here that I feel that diversity is very important to our culture and that everyone’s rights to free expression, worship, assembly, gender identity, write, speak, sing and dance, among other things, are inalienable and that the protections of our constitution are downright sacred as they were, after all, endowed by our creator. My spiritual beliefs fall into a highly complex web of ecumenicalism and I won’t discuss them here today. I do, however, find it very disturbing when the beliefs of a single religion hinder the rights of another group or individual to participate freely in an open society.
Many beliefs that come from all kinds of religions fall into the category of “common sense” and, thus, as they joined our culture as mores, they also enter our legal system without the burden of accusations that the rule comes from a specific belief system. Thus, the fact that the phrase “Thou shall not kill,” comes from the popular monotheist traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, doesn’t mean that the laws against homicide deserve a challenge under separation of church and state. I know, there exist certain belief systems that enjoy human sacrifice and such but I believe the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness trump the religious rights to rites of killing people, if you disagree, sue me.
Thus, when I read a piece in Blind News this morning describing discrimination against guide dog users by Islamic taxi drivers in Oslo Norway, I felt a decent level of indignation. Norway, after all, represents openness and freedom. King Christian of Norway, during Hitler’s reign of tyranny, saved many Jewish people from the death chambers. Norwegians today have a happy democracy and, excepting their cultural fixation with eating whale meat, they represent one of the most open and liberal cultures on the planet.
Many immigrants to Norway, however, bring their Islamic beliefs with them. “How come all taxi drivers and convenience store clerks come from foreign countries?”
“Because those are entry level jobs, the same reason it was your grandparents who built the railroad, you xenophobic jerk!”
This joke works in Norway as well as in the US where many entry level jobs, like driving a hack or picking crops fall to immigrants as the longer term residents don’t care to take such positions. According to an article in the Brussels Journal, “In the city of Oslo, Norway… Muslims make up such a high percentage of cab drivers that it can be hard to obtain a taxi during Islamic holidays. Blind people with their guide dogs are finding it increasingly difficult to get a taxi ride, as demonstrated by a lady in the city of Drammen outside Oslo.”
I knew that many people in the Middle East dislike dogs but didn’t realize that there existed a quote in the Koran that actually says that designated dogs as unholy. The article continues, “Dogs are considered extremely dirty animals in Islam and only permitted for certain limited uses, such as guarding your property. Two hadith, traditions relating to the words and deeds of Muhammad, state that: “The Prophet said, ‘Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or there are pictures’ and ‘Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) ordered the killing of dogs and we would send (men) in Medina and its corners and we did not spare any dog that we did not kill.'”
Previously, I thought this was a cultural and not a religious issue but, as the article states, “Grethe Olsen, accompanied by her guide dog Isak, experienced being rejected by no less than 21 taxis before finally getting a ride. Olsen thought the taxi drivers said no for religious reasons. The Norwegian Blind Association confirmed that this is a well known problem all over the country, especially in cities with many immigrants.”
So, does the right to freedom of religion trump that of a blind person to reasonable accommodations?
By no means do I think this question has a simple answer. In the US, we have pharmacists who refuse to dispense certain “morning after” pills and “RU 486” (which to me always sounded like a 90s vintage PC) abortion pill because their belief systems equate using these drugs with homicide, the most fundamental way in which one’s civil rights can end suddenly. I don’t want to wade into the abortion debate but in the US we have other examples where a belief system can trump a law that applies to the majority.
One of my all time heroes, Muhammad Ali, gave up the boxing title and a few years at the pinnacle of his career to stand for his pacifist beliefs. The US Supreme Court agreed that Ali held deep beliefs and that he could choose not to participate in the Viet Nam War due to his ideals. This rule has applied to Quakers, Amish and other groups who hold religious beliefs that prohibit one from participating in war, harming others, etc.
Even in prisons, the dietary requirements of the Old Testament are followed for Jewish prisoners and people who choose not to eat meat are fed vegetarian diets. This may sound frivolous but to the believers in such faiths, dietary restrictions are extremely important. I don’t think I can judge which religious freedoms (short of homicide, child abuse and the really ugly stuff) that should or should not be accepted in a free and diverse society.
Then, of course, we come to the borderline cases where the religious beliefs of one group may put another group into danger. Often, in New England, where the population of Christian Scientists is fairly large, a controversy over immunization programs will arise and the courts will need to get involved to decide whether people who believe that only Jesus can heal and shun medicine entirely should be forced to have their children immunized against common diseases. If the children do not get the shots, the probability of an epidemic increases; if they do, the rights of Christian Scientists are superseded by a decision of the local government. I’m really happy I needn’t make such decisions as my personal anarchist side really clashes with my public welfare side in such cases.
Islam has taken quite a beating in western nations since the tragic 911 bombings. None of my Moslem friends or colleagues support the radical form of Islam and can’t find where in the Koran such acts are endorsed. In the same vein, though, many of my Christian friends accept science, astronomy, evolution, geology, etc. as taught by the mainstream scientific community so fundamentalist beliefs do not seem to be a requirement of major religions.
Unfortunately, prior to 911, the Bush administration really liked fundamentalist governments and, in April 2001, sent the Taliban $40 million in military aid to fight the war on drugs. Silly us, we actually sent the Taliban $40 million to fight a war against the US but we needn’t go into that here. The now deposed but still fighting fundamentalist Taliban regime found that its religious beliefs trumped nearly every civil right we accept as a birth right in the west. But, because they first fought the Soviets and later we thought they took our side in the drug war, the US funded Ben Laden and the Taliban and treated them as friends.
In the US, certain fundamentalist sects work hard to keep the teaching of evolution out of our text books or, at the very least, work to include completely untested and untestable hypothesizes in our schools that fit their religious beliefs. These same people often work against legislation that supports civil rights, diversity, women’s rights and all sorts of things that people like me accept as inalienable. We live in a democracy and such is the way of a freely elected government.
I must state, though, that my fundamentalist Christian friends seem far less violent than many Islamic fundamentalists around the world. Yes, I know of some nutcases who bomb abortion clinics and do other crazy acts of domestic terrorism but these whackos represent a tiny minority of Christians in the US as the fundamentalists Moslems probably represent a small minority of Islamists in the world but many of the fundamentalist Moslems have taken control of large population centers and governments.
When the Vatican denounced “The Da Vinci Code” nobody died in riots. A few cartoons published in a Scandinavian newspaper and all of a sudden, embassies start exploding. My belief is that if you don’t like the message in a film, newspaper, cartoon or whatever, write a letter to its author, maybe even peacefully picket outside a place that shows it but killing people, rioting and blowing up buildings is absolutely out of proportion to an item that depicts your religion unfavorably.
Well, I’ve wandered all over today. Returning to the topic, does a taxi driver’s religious belief trump a blind person’s right to public accommodations? Please send me your comments as I, for one, don’t have the answer to troublesome questions like this. I won’t, however, blow up any buildings to demonstrate my outrage at guide dogs being refused cab rides.